Bag&Baggage's 'An Island in Winter'
Working alongside Bag&Baggage Productions is a dream come true for Hillsboro High graduate Carlos-Zenen Trujillo, who wrote the professional theater company's latest William Shakespeare adaptation for the stage, "An Island in Winter/La Isla en Invierno."
Trujillo remembers attending shows with his peers as a student for free — a great experience for a burgeoning theater buff like himself, he said. He later become an actor in the company's show, "Spinning into Butter."
"There wasn't a lot of professional theater around, and there was definitely none in Portland I could afford, so being able to go to free shows at Bag&Baggage propelled me into deeper theater and studying it," Trujillo said. "Seeing this as a show at Bag&Baggage, but directed by Scott Palmer and (having) this be his last show ... it is completely overwhelming. I am so happy I can be a part of it."
"An Island in Winter/La Isla en Invierno" is adapted from Shakespeare's "The Winter's Tale" and is the first play to be commissioned by Bag&Baggage's The Problem Play Project, which commissions an emerging Oregon playwright of color to adapt one of Shakespeare's "problem plays" to speak to modern-day diversity and social themes, creative director Scott Palmer said.
A problem play is a story that doesn't fit into one theme and blurs the lines between several, like comedy or tragedy. Among Shakespeare's famous problem plays are "The Merchant of Venice," "Romeo and Juliet," "The Winter's Tale" and more.
The Problem Play Project derived from the success of Bag&Baggage's "Romeo&Juliet (Layla&Manjun)" production in 2017, which derived inspiration from both Persian poetry and Shakespeare's play.
The show's reception saw an increase in the diversity of actors and audience members, Palmer said.
"We saw that approach was useful in diversifying actors we worked with and new audience members," Palmer said. "We wanted to push that even further and start commissioning original adaptations by artists of color from Oregon that have a focus on the community of Hillsboro."
Trujillo currently attends Southern Oregon University in Ashland.
"We auditioned him, and he was brilliant," Palmer said. "When we found out we received the funding for The Problem Play Project, Carlos decided to apply for that commission."
Trujillo was one of 13 people who applied and submitted a script, with the majority of the decision panel, comprised of Shakespearean scholars, voting for "The Island in Winter," Palmer said.
"We are thrilled Carlos was selected for our first project, not only because he is from here and is a Hillsboro kid, but because of his Cuban-American heritage and his connection to the Latinx community," Palmer said. "This was a great opportunity for us to dig deep into a sector of Hillsboro that don't identify Bag&Baggage as their theater company. We want them to know this is a safe place for them to come, but they are also welcomed here, and they are going to see their own stories told on stage."
This is Palmer's last play as a director at Bag&Baggage, but he couldn't imagine any other production to end on, he said.
"Bag&Baggage has had a long history, almost 15 years, of adapting Shakespeare as I've been artistic director," Palmer said. "One of the great joys of my time here is the ability to play fast and loose with Shakespeare and adapt and change it to fit a contemporary audience. This is a perfect coming-full-circle moment for me to be directing my last adaptation at Bag&Baggage by an emerging, remarkable young artist of color. It feels like passing this on to another generation."
"The Winter's Tale" is known for its "swing in mood and tone," Palmer said, making it a challenge to stage, as the story begins dark and dramatic but becomes lighter and more comedic by the third act, after the location changes.
While Trujillo's adaptation holds onto the switch in tone and feel, the storyline also speaks to people being forced from their homes and finding family in a new community.
"An Island in Winter" discusses the Cuban Revolution, Cubans immigrating to the United States and the immigrant experience, an idea that Palmer said is a "great basepoint for taking on 'A Winter's Tale.'"
"What Carlos has done with it is taken that basic kernel and developed a show that is really powerful and poignant and beautiful about the Cuban-American experience. It is all about home, and I think anyone who has left home and returned, or anyone with an immigrant experience, this play will resonate with them," Palmer said.
"The Island in Winter" is personal to Trujillo, who moved to the United States in 2001 from the rural town of Bejucal, Cuba. Today, Trujillo and his family often travel back to visit members of his family.
"This play, and every play I write, is like therapy," Trujillo said. "I write to get over this anxiety I've always felt because I've left Cuba at such a young age, without a knowledge of what leaving was. One second, I had this life that I've known since I was born, and being surrounded by friendly faces all the time and these colors and feelings, and then suddenly I am not there anymore, where people speak a new language. I naturally assimilated and became more American, but I had never really lost that sense of 'I am not really from here,' and 'I feel other.' My writing, all of it, confirms that."
Many of the characters tackle the same issues Trujillo feels he has gone through, especially Perdita, a character who is Cuban-American and feels she doesn't belong in either place, he said.
While his adaptation takes place in Cuba, Trujillo said the version he writes is "not the real Cuba."
"This isn't the realistic Cuba," he said. "It is the Cuba of my childhood and imagination from when I was 5. Religion also plays a big part in it — I've always been steeped in Catholicism and Santeria, the folk religion in Cuba. I've always been brought up in those two worlds, and pulled into this tradition and that magic. It seemed such a big part of my childhood, this idea of magic, and the colors and shapes and looks of everything."
The practice of Santeria is "quintessential" to Cuban culture and was important to bring into the play, Trujillo said. He said he feels the practice has been "demonized" and stereotyped, and he hopes to help change that with this play.
"I am hoping this will showcase that there is a very diverse, beautiful culture within that realm, and I want to help people experience that. For me, it was easy to go through and pick 'The Winter's Tale,' because I saw these parallels of these archetypes Shakespeare wrote and archetypes of the Afro-Cuban religion," Trujillo said. "I was able to really hone in on the base versions of the characters ... rebuilt in a Cuban way."
The adaptation is bilingual, including original lines from Shakespeare but also weaving in Cuban poetry.
One theme on which Trujillo focuses in "An Island in Winter" is transition, as the play takes place in Miami and Havana.
"This is all about movement, and the way oceans and borders divide people, and the way stories unify people," Trujillo said. "This is about divided issues as well, like politics."
The first act takes place during the Cuban Revolution, with the play portraying the island nation before and after.
"Those Cubas are completely different Cubas," he said.
"My goal was to soften Act 1 so it wasn't so dark, and turn Act 2 into dark so it isn't so light or jovial," Trujillo said. "There is still a deep feeling of joy, and in the final scene of the play, I really wanted to show a sense of relief. An important thing for me was in the original play, things go back to normal after an entire journey. In my version, I wanted it to be different and that the characters could not be the same, and the ending is bittersweet and think, 'Was all that necessary, for all that strife to happen?'"
Choosing "The Winter's Tale" for The Problem Play project felt gravitational, Trujillo said.
"This is profoundly, deeply, unapologetically Latin American work," Trujillo said. "As a Latino right now, it feels weird being Latin American in the current climate. It feels strange, the scheme of what America is. This is deeply Cuban, the way that it communicates those themes is important because many people don't know about our history, especially on the West Coast. There is 10 of these kinds of plays going on in Miami. In Oregon, you don't get to see that kind of experience."
While shows are quickly selling out, there are still tickets left, but they aren't expected to last long.
"With the exception of Milagro Theatre (in) Portland, there is not a lot of places in Hillsboro that Latinos can see themselves on stage," Trujillo said. "I really am super proud and intimidated that my play is the first really opening up to this community."
Shows begin Thursday, March 7, at The Vault Theatre, 350 E. Main St. in Hillsboro, and run until Sunday, March 24. Tickets are $32 for adults or $27 for students and seniors and can be purchased at bagnbaggage.org.
By Janae Easlon
Forest Grove News-Times and Hillsboro Tribune971-762-1166
Follow Janae at @Janae_Easlon
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